Searching for the Right Metaphor: Veterans in Popular Culture

My research on veterans has been driven by a number of questions.  Foremost among them has been how we as a culture choose to represent veterans in the United States.  Naturally the answer to this question depends upon the war discussed.  Conflicts far distant in our imagination take on a mythic status.  Minute Men and the civilian militia dominate our mental portrait of The Revolutionary War while Johnny Reb and Billy Yank still loom large over the United States Civil War.  World War Two remains framed by the “Greatest Generation” label associated with it by former news anchor Tom Brokaw.  The Vietnam war is only slowly beginning to mythologize as its veterans advance in age and the war fades from living memory.

Part of the reason I chose to write a book on veterans of the Civil War was the challenge associated with attempting to recover the actual lives of veterans who fought in one of our nation’s most mythologized conflicts. Moving beyond the statues of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank that stand in town squares throughout most of the United States, I wanted to know: What had soldiers of the Civil War survived?  How did they understand it?  How did non-combatants understand them? What I discovered was that the Civil War served as a turning point in the way veterans were understood in American culture.  It set in motion ways of understanding former soldiers that remain influential today.

We tend to take for granted that veterans are different from civilians.  This assumption was not widely shared until the late nineteenth-century.  Military service was a skill or craft and participation in a war one of the many events that took place in a man’s life.  The unique nature of the Civil War, which nearly destroyed the country, marked the soldiers who survived this conflict differently from their forebears.  In the last years of the war, the pace of combat also changed leaving soldiers psychologically scarred by events they did not have time to process until much later in their lives.

Civilians viewed the growth of the veteran as a distinct social category with apprehension.  On the one hand, they were viewed as wounded warriors in need of civilian care and sympathy.  On the other, veterans were a potentially destabilizing force to society.  For every image of a pathos laden amputee returning to his family in Civil War era newspapers and magazines there was also a tramp, addicted to alcohol and drugs and never quite able to get his life together after the war.  In spite of the gender assumptions of the era, it did not seem clear at all that war made men.  Instead it seemed to unman them or remake them into something vaguely monstrous.

Time passes and the details change, but the Janus-like figure of the veteran as victim or threat remains.  They are two different ways of looking at soldiers and yet they are inextricable from each other.  Perhaps the best example in our own times remains the film First Blood (1982).  John J. Rambo is a special forces veteran of the Vietnam War.  Most viewers of the film will readily remember the action sequences as Rambo unleashes his military training upon a small town in the pacific northwest.  What often gets forgotten, however, is the somber way in which the film begins.  Rambo is a tramp.  We first see him hitchhiking with his battered field jacket and pack.  He is looking for fellow survivors from his unit in the war.  His travels bring him to the pacific northwest where he discovers that another comrade has died since the war, this one of cancer.  Not long after this depressing discovery, Rambo is confronted with a Sheriff who attempts to get him to leave his town.  He rebuffs the Sheriff’s attempts to push him back on the road and gets arrested.  Rambo is mistreated in prison and memories of the war emerge.  Suddenly he sees himself as a P.O.W. in North Vietnamese captivity.  Rambo escapes and engages in an epic battle with local law enforcement and the national guard.  It is only when his former commander comes to “take him home” that the violence ends and peace is restored to the small town.

One doesn’t often expect to find a parable contained in a popular film, but First Blood is the veteran parable as we’ve inherited it in perfect form.  Initially an object of pity, it takes very little effort for Rambo to become a threat. He has brought the war home with him and disrupted the lives of those far removed from it.  Only by removing him can peace be restored.  A soldier once, he is a soldier forever.

A better film in many respects than First Blood, winning six Oscars, The Hurt Locker (2008) nonetheless helps to perpetuate the “soldier once, soldier forever” theme.  Bomb technician Sergeant William James is the protagonist of this film.  Far from being a tramp, he is instead presented as a reckless adrenaline junky.  James pushes the limits with each mission and in the process risks getting himself and his team blown up by a bomb.  When he returns from his combat rotation, James attempts to readjust to civilian life with his family.  We see him cleaning the leaves from the gutters of his home, helping his wife chop vegetables for dinner, watching the baby, and helping his wife shop at grocery store.  In most of these tasks we see James attempting to feign some interest. We even see him filled with greater terror at the overabundance of the U.S. supermarket than he ever exhibited on the war-torn streets of Iraq.  Uncomfortable at home, James re-enlists and the last we see of him he is leaving a troop transport at the airport for his new base.

Surprisingly, few have noted the significance of the name William James being used for the protagonist of this film.  Nineteenth-century U.S. psychologist and philosopher William James was a proponent of a “moral equivalent of war.”  Like most of his contemporaries, James wanted to believe in the man-making power of military service.  At the same time, however, he had seen how the Civil War had scarred his younger brothers Wilky and Bob.  James wondered if the uplifting aspects of the soldier’s life could be separated from the ugliness of war.  The Hurt Locker has no such interest in war’s moral equivalent.  Nevertheless, it does, like James’s research, remind us that war is not the soldier’s problem.  It is a shared concern for the society that creates armies and sanctions war. In the end, this is what our current metaphors seek to evade.  War is many things, but at its heart it is a social pathology rather than an individual malady.

No image can do justice to the full range of experience in any person’s life.  Veterans are people with all their faults and virtues.  They are also complex texts for a society to read and interpret.  Unlike dead soldiers they talk back.  Their stories bend and twist down many roads, assaulting our assumptions about ourselves and our world. That’s one reason why we continue to search for the right metaphor.

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